US

Washington School District Instructed Teachers to Bless Muslim Students in Arabic During Ramadan: Letter

By Zachary Stieber

The superintendent of a school district in Washington state sent a letter to all the principals in her district instructing them to tell teachers to bless Muslim students in Arabic during the Islamic month of Ramadan, according to a letter obtained by a First Amendment legal advocacy group.

In an email obtained by the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, Dieringer School District Superintendent Judy Martinson forwarded instructions from the Council on American-Islamic Relations on how to treat Muslim students during Ramadan.

The two-page letter, which the fund published (pdf), starts with the information that three “major Islamic holidays” were coming up, including Ramadan, which started on May 5 and runs through June 4; Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid Al-Adha, another religious day set for Aug. 11.

The letter urged the school district to inform teachers that they should “welcome Muslim students during Ramadan with ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ or ‘Ramadan Kareem.'” The former means “Happy Ramadan” and the latter means “Have a generous Ramadan.”

The guidelines issued by the council also said that “teachers can accommodate Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha by not scheduling tests or important assignments on those days.”

Further, the district should “consider adding” the two religious holidays “to your school’s calendar,” the council told Martinson. “In the same way that efforts are made to acknowledge Christmas and Hanukkah in schools, we encourage you to acknowledge Islamic holidays to the same extent.”

“In addition to supporting Muslim students during Ramadan, you can also support Muslim students in your school by accommodating their need for prayer year-round,” the council added. “One of two of which will typically occur during school hours.”

The district should also provide a place for Muslim employees to pray and give the employees “an extended lunch break” every Friday, it said.

The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund said that Martinson, by forwarding the letter to principals, who then sent the letter to teachers, “acted under color of state law to create an official policy that has a primary effect of advancing religion.”

“The District’s Ramadan Policy likely violates the clause’s demand that the government remains neutral toward religion,” it added. “The policy also likely violates the Free Exercise Clause, because it commands that Ramadan religious concerns automatically control over all other interests at school without taking into account the convenience or interests of non-Muslim students.”

About the recommendation that teachers greet Muslim students with blessings in Arabic, the fund added: “This recommendation exposes the District to serious government liability under the First Amendment. By reason of the First Amendment government is commanded to have no interest in theology or ritual, for on those matters government must be neutral; Exchanging Islamic greetings with Muslim students impermissibly advances and promotes a religious message.”

In a statement, Daniel Piedra, the fund’s executive director, added: “By urging teachers to bless Muslim students in Arabic, the District is running roughshod over the First Amendment’s mandate of government neutrality toward religion. A school district would never order teachers to ‘welcome’ Catholic students during Easter with ‘He is risen, alleluia!’ Singling out Muslim students for special treatment is blatantly unconstitutional.”

Martinson issued a statement on May 7 after the fund released the information, reported Fox News, telling members of her school district: “The Dieringer School District has not and would not violate the First Amendment by endorsing any religious observations. Be assured that we respect the personal beliefs of you and your family.”

In a statement posted to the district’s website later on Tuesday, Martinson wrote: “Fox News has released a news story regarding the Dieringer School District that is totally false. The Dieringer School District has not and would not violate the First Amendment by endorsing any religious observations. Be assured that we respect the personal beliefs of you and your family. We are very disappointed that a national television network would broadcast a story based on no facts or information.”

(Screenshot/Dieringer School District)

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, claimed that the fund’s pushing back against the promotion of Islam in a public school was a “sign of the growing Islamophobia in our nation that showing respect for and accommodating the religious traditions of Muslim students could result in punitive legal action.”

“Pluralism in America means recognizing the wide variety of holidays celebrated by students of different faiths and backgrounds, Hooper told Fox, “including by saying ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy Hanukkah,’ ‘Happy Diwali,’ or ‘Ramadan Mubarak.'”